‘It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.’
For quite a few years, whenever I travelled abroad, I took Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories along for the journey. Or sometimes they were a prescription for recovery when I was feeling mouldy. Marlowe’s lonely pursuit of a case through a baffling trail of murder and mayhem, mixing drinks, dispensing wisecracks and attracting enough knocks on the head to floor Mike Tyson, could blot out airport delays, cramped hours in flight or feverish nights wrestling with the bedclothes.
Most often he figured in The Big Sleep, dressed to kill, as in the quotation above, or in The Long Goodbye, his penultimate appearance. The complete cycle of half a dozen titles (seven including the last, less known Playback) was just sizeable enough to allow a measured rotation before one returned, refreshed, to the favourites.
Chandler himself defined literature as ‘any sort of writing that generates its own heat’, which fairly describes his own best work. No other crime writer could work the same narcotic chemistry in my experience. I relished the hyperbole (‘a rough sky-blue sports coat not wider at the shoulders than a two-car garage’), the terse dialogue, the cast of outsize gangsters, millionaires, petty crooks, embittered law enforcers and femmes fatales who crossed their legs a little carelessly. And Marlowe, for ever pitted against the black knights of the beautiful corrupt city, on $25 a day plus expenses.
Chandler’s creation spawned a movie genre, and survi
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